12. Led Zeppelin: Taking the Devil to favour

The status of rock ‘n roll as “the Devil’s music” seems reasonably assured for the foreseeable, though you may feel differently if you’re acquainted with Gyorgy Ligeti’s Apparitions or Lontano, of which I will write more at a later date. All through my youth, though, the particular association of heavy metal with Satanism was a hot-button topic, and you have to say that a lot of the bands themselves were happy to be ‘tarnished’ in this manner. Thus the celebrated nonsense of runic scratches on the run-out vinyl and the ‘backward masking’ of diabolical oaths. (As Bill Hicks mimed it imperishably, ‘Did you hear that? ‘Satan is Lord’? Gee, it’s just like He’s in the room…?’)
I remember some time I spent about 10 years ago in a car driving through rural Illinois, with nothing to see out the window but barren-looking cornfields and ill-smelling rendering plants, and nothing on the radio but heavy rock stations pumping out ‘Hell’s Bells’ and ‘Running With The Devil’… It struck me then that there was an excellent reason why Mid-West America went looking for God in wide open spaces, and why the youth of the region had probable cause to solicit the Evil One, He with all the best tunes.
I doubt anyone but the terminally adolescent really believes that Led Zeppelin sought to veil the audio-message ‘Here’s to my sweet Satan… there was a little tool-shed where he made us suffer’ backwards inside the flowery lyrics of their ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ But the legend makes for better reading, of course. No, Zeppelin’s wrestle with the devilish arises more from Jimmy Page’s renowned fondness for the writings of Aleister Crowley – ‘The Beast’ or, if you like, ‘The Laird of Boleskine.’ (Page bought and lived for a while in the Boleskine House on Loch Ness in homage to Crowley having been resident there back at the turn of the century.) There is another urban rock myth that Page’s immersion in the dark arts contributed to a string of accidents and outright tragedies that assailed Led Zeppelin in the late 1970s. But, again, you’d have to be very young in body and soul not to see how the famously impossible ‘rock ‘n roll lifestyle’ exacted most of that toll.
Nonetheless there is another Faustian wrinkle to the Led Zep legend that arises from their notorious pilfering and reinterpreting of American blues music, which partakes of its own very special share of the demonic. As Stephen Davis tells it in his unauthorised Zep biography Hammer of the Gods:
“In the delta of the Mississippi River, where Robert Johnson was born, they said that if an aspiring bluesman waited by the side of a deserted country crossroads in the dark of a moonless night, then Satan himself might come and tune his guitar, sealing a pact for the bluesman’s soul and guaranteeing a lifetime of easy money, women, and fame. They said that Robert Johnson must have waited by the crossroads and gotten his guitar fine-tuned…”
Page and Plant clearly were aware of such lore and of its fascination. That’s why there is tremendous power – Presence, to invoke the album on which it appears – in Zeppelin’s version of ‘Nobody’s Fault But Mine’, a traditional blues number associated with Blind Willie Johnson c. the late 1920s. The Johnson version is a lament by a man who believes he must read the good Bible he keeps at home lest ‘his soul be lost.’ How do Plant and Page twist it? Well, there is a refrain about trying ‘to save my soul tonight.’ But it seems more pointed somehow when Plant sings ‘Devil he told me to roll’ and ‘Got a monkey on my back… Gonna change my ways tonight…’
A later 1994 version by Plant and Page in their ‘unplugged’ duo incarnation is infused with folk/’world’ instrumentation, and restores the line about the ‘Bible in my home’ while adding the line ‘Tryin’ to raise my soul to light’ and ditching the reference to the artist formerly known as Sweet Satan. It’s a majestic piece, and this filmed performance of it (shot amid slate quarry-land in Wales, apparently) has a high grandeur.

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